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The Spirit Lake Massacre


The 1850s were a time of increasing conflict between the Dakota and settlers who were steadily moving west. The encroachment on traditional hunting grounds left the Dakota frustrated. Relations between the two groups were tense, with sporadic violence. Then came the shocking massacre at Spirit Lake, Iowa. Suffering from cold and hunger, Inkpaduta was angry. He led his band in an attack on the settlers, killing about thirty. They crossed into Minnesota where they killed seven more. On this date in 1857, they killed one more before riding west.

News of the killings spurred Minnesota settlers to form militias. They demanded that the marauders be punished, and they attacked any Dakota they could find, even the innocent. The hard feelings remained after the fighting died down.

Five years later came the Dakota Uprising, with both the settlers and Dakota suffering casualties. The uprising was short-lived, lasting only two months, but led to an ongoing conflict in Dakota Territory.

General Henry Hastings Sibley and General Alfred Sully were tasked with following the Dakota and putting an end to the threat they posed. Sibley and Sully led expeditions to do just that in the summer of 1863, but without much success. The summer culminated in Sully’s attack on a large gathering at Whitestone Hill. Twenty soldiers were killed in the fighting, with Dakota losses estimated at 300 – most of them women and children.

Sully tried again the following year. He met Inkpaduta at Killdeer Mountain. Inkpaduta was joined by noted chiefs Sitting Bull and Gall. Sully seemed to be getting the worst of the fighting until he opened fire with artillery. Once again, women and children were killed. Inkpaduta and his followers decamped and rode for the Badlands.

The fighting continued across the Dakotas. In 1876, General Custer rode out of Fort Abraham Lincoln for his last battle at Little Big Horn.

The Spirit Lake Massacre happened in Iowa. But over the next several decades, incident continued to have repercussions in Dakota Territory.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Anderson, Gary Clayton. Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1650-1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984.

Beck, Paul N. Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions 1863-1864. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

Bristow, David L. “Inkpaduta’s Revenge: The True Story of the Spirit Lake Massacre.” The Iowan, January/February, 1999.

New York Times. “Further Details of Gen. Sully’s Battle with the Sioux.” 11 September, 1863.